All You Need To Know About Japanese Knives

All You Need To Know About Japanese Knives

The knife is the most most important tool for any chef, regardless of cuisine.  Japanese knives are renowned in kitchens worldwide for their craftsmanship and quality. There are multiple varieties of Japanese knives and the traditional techniques used to produce these knives play a vital role in differentiating them from other common kitchen knives.

A Brief Overview

"Hagane" steel or stainless steel is the primary material that most companies use when making Japanese knives.  The best Japanese knives are hand crafted using the same forging and grinding processes that were used to make traditional samurai swords centuries ago. There are different names that the Japanese people use for knives. "Hocho" (lit. kitchen knife), and "~ Kiri" (lit. ~ cutter) are the most common terms you will come across.

Close-up of a Japanese chef's knife.

The city of Sakai is the most famous place in Japan to buy premium Japanese kitchen knives.  Located in Osaka prefecture, this medium sized port town was responsible for over ¥1 billion (approximately $8.53 million USD) of knife exports in 2014 alone.  

The production of knives in Sakai dates far back to the 1400s, when it the capital of samurai sword manufacturing.  In the 1500s, Sakai further cemented itself as a blade-making hub, when they began producing the first tobacco knives in Japan.  Fast forward to today, and Sakai is truly a blade making powerhouse.  Over 90% of all knives used by professional chefs in Japan come from Sakai!

Some other famous knife producing locations in Japan include cities in Niigata, Fukui, Gifu and Kochi prefectures.

Forging Types - Honyaki vs Kasumi

Forging is the most important step when producing Japanese knives.  It is when the blade material is heated to the appropriate temperature and shaped by the craftsman with a hammer (or similar tool) into the desired shape.  The forging process helps improve the hardness as well as the stickiness of steel, making the knife sharp and strong.  The knife is then finished through a process of heat treatment, grinding, sharpening, cleaning/polishing, and handle attachment.

Traditional Japanese knives are generally separated into two main classes or categories based on their forging method and materials used.  These categories are "Honyaki" (lit. true-fire or true-forge) and "Kasumi" (lit. mist).

The Honyaki Method

honyaki yanagi japanese knife

This method forges the blade from a single piece of extremely high-carbon steel.  The steel used in Japanese Honyaki knives is generally either Shirogami (white steel) or Aogami (blue steel).  The forging process is done completely by hand, similar to the method used for traditional samurai swords.   It is a very time consuming, technically-difficult process which can only be done by highly skilled, and experienced craftsmen.  The resulting blades are extremely hard and retain their sharpness for a long time.

Honyaki knives are the highest quality kitchen knives in Japan, and sought after by professional chefs around the world.  As a result of the long, labor-intensive manufacturing process though, Honyaki blades are also much more expensive than other Japanese knives.  They can easily be over $1,000 (USD) per knife.

Aside from the high price, one downside of Honyaki knives is that they are very tricky to maintain and sharpen.  They can be prone to chipping if used incorrectly, and are thus generally only recommended for professional chefs.

The Kasumi Method

Unlike the Honyaki method, Kasumi knives are forged from two pieces of material -- "Jigane" (soft iron) and high-carbon or stainless steel.  The steel is used only for the cutting edge, while the body and rest of the knife is made from the soft iron.

 Visual breakdown of a kasumi forged yanagi knife ( Tsukiji brand) 

As a result, Kasumi blades are not quite as stiff as Honyaki blades, but easier to maintain and sharpen.  They are also less expensive.  Amateur and professional chefs looking for a high quality Japanese knife can opt for Kasumi knives as they are cheaper, but still extremely sharp and durable.

Some higher end Kasumi knives (sometimes known as "Hon-kasumi") use a higher quality steel in production.

Fun fact -- the name "Kasumi" (i.e. mist in English) comes from the hazy or "misty" appearance of the knife's soft-iron body.  Honyaki knives, on the other hand, are completely glossy/shiny because they are made 100% of polished steel. 

Japanese Made vs German Made Knives

Since Japanese-made knives are gaining worldwide popularity, people often wonder the reason behind the popularity.  A common question that people ask is, "What is the difference between Japanese made knives and Western/German made knives?"   Germany is the most popular Western country that produces knives, so comparisons are often made between the two.  There are a few fundamental differences between the Japanese and German made knives, mainly:  weight, material, blade thickness, blade profile/shape, edge angle, and usage.

userwhat does evernote helper do

Note:  Please don't get this confused with Japanese STYLE vs. Western STYLE knives, as there are also Japanese-made Western-style knives.  Confused?  See the next section for a comparison of Japanese made Traditional-style and Western-style.

Weight

One area where Japanese knives differ greatly from typical Western made knives is their weight.  Japanese blades are known to be much more lightweight and nimble compared to their heavier set Western counterparts.  The lightweight makes the knife easier to handle, and lends itself well to Japanese cooking which typically requires more detail and precision. Western made knives are more suitable for heavy chopping tasks   

The handles of Japanese knives are also usually very light, which shifts the balance of the knife more up towards the tip of the blade for even more precision control.   German knives generally have a more balanced handle with weight focused directly behind the knife edge for extra strength when chopping.

Blade Thickness

Japanese knives' blades are thinner, sharper and often feature no bolster (the little band thats joins the blade to the handle).  This again lends itself to the precision and detail of Japanese cooking (think about slicing sashimi).

German knives have thicker, heavier blades, as well as a thick bolster.  The heavier, sturdier blade is more suitable for tougher cutting tasks like breaking through chicken bone.

Material / Steel type

The type of steel used is another fundamental difference between Japanese and German made knives.  Japanese knives use a harder steel.  Measured using the Rockwell hardness scale, Japanese knives usually measure between 59-64 HRC, while German knives mostly measure between 55-58 HRC.  

The harder steel means that Japanese knives can maintain their sharpness longer.  But, it also makes it more difficult to sharpen once dull compared to softer-steeled knives.

A bit counterintuitively, the higher HRC combined with the thinness of Japanese blades make them more brittle, and prone to chipping compared to German knives.  Therefore you should be more careful with how you use your Japanese knife.  Dropping, or accidentally cutting hard surfaces can easily damage the edge.

Japanese chef's knife.

Blade Shape / Profile

The typical Japanese blade profile is relatively flat until the very end when it begins to curve upward/downward towards the tip.  In contract, a German blade generally has a more curved profile, making it more suitable for the rocking style of chopping.  The Japanese blade profile makes it more suitable for making long clean slices (think sashimi).

Edge angle

The angle of the knife's cutting edge is another main factor in differentiating Japanese made and Western made knives.  A Japanese knife usually has an angle from anywhere between 10 to 15 degrees.  A typical German knife has an edge angle 20 to 22 degrees, almost twice as large as a Japanese knife.

The more acute angle of the Japanese blade means it is sharper, and will cut through your foods with more ease.  It can also make finer more delicate cuts.  You must really take care of your knife though, as the edge is more easily damaged.

The German blade is designed with an angle to be just sharp enough to cut, but able to take more abuse.  It also requires more frequent sharpening to maintain a decent cutting ability. 

Overall usage

As you may have figured out, the lighter, thinner, nimbler, sharper Japanese knives are most suitable for precision and detailed cutting.  If you are doing a lot of Japanese cooking, or any cooking that requires more fine cutting, then you will probably prefer a Japanese made knife.  

Western / German made knives are a bit more durable, but heavier and not as sharp or thin. These knives are more suitable for utility usage, and if you do not want to worry about caring for your knife as much.  

Japanese Knife types - Double Beveled And Single Beveled 

There are two main styles of Japanese made knives -- traditional Japanese style and Western style.  The main difference between the two is that traditional Japanese style knives have single beveled blades, while Western style knives have double beveled blades.  This basically means Western style knives are sharpened on both side of the blade, while traditional Japanese style knives are only sharpened on one side.

Double Beveled And Single Beveled Knives

There are numerous different types of Western style knives and Japanese style knives, each with their own specific use.  Let's take a deeper look at both knife styles, and some popular knife types in each category.

Western Style (Double Beveled Knives)

Western style knives are double beveled, meaning that they have a symmetrical V-shaped cutting edge.  These type of knives did not start being produced in Japan until after World War II, when Japanese adopted the idea from French and German made knives.  Japanese-made Western style knives are usually thinner and sharper than their European counterparts.

Double-bevel blades are easier to handle than single-bevel, and also easier to sharpen.  They are generally more versatile, as many are designed for general purpose usage -- to cut meat, fish or vegetables. The versatility and ease of use makes Western style knives the more suitable choice for at home chefs.  Below are some popular types of Western-style Japanese knives.

Gyuto - All purpose Chef's knife

Gyuto literally means "beef-sword".  Despite the name, it is used for almost all cutting tasks including vegetables, meat, and fish.  It is the Japanese version of the classic French and German chef's knife.  The blade profile is less curved than a typical French or German chef's knife, while also being lighter and sharper.

This is the most versatile of Japanese Western-style knives, and can be used with multiple different cutting techniques depending on what you are cutting and the result you want.

A gyuto knife is commonly around 210mm or 240mm in length.  If you are looking for one knife to start learning with, we recommend getting a Gyuto and/or a Santoku (see below).

Santoku - Slicing, Dicing, and Mincing

The santoku (meaning "three virtues") is another all purpose Japanese knife found in most Japanese homes.  The three virtues it refers to is the knife's ability to cut vegetables, meat, or fish using different cutting techniques (slicing, dicing, or mincing).  

A santoku is similar in usage, but smaller than the Gyuto, usually measuring somewhere between 150mm to 200mm in length.  The shape is also different, with a flatter profile, and less pointy tip.  The smaller size makes it more convenient for use in small spaces.  

The santoku knife is also sometimes known as the bunka bocho (meaning "culture knife").

Nakiri - Vegetable knife

Nakiri literally translate to "knife for cutting greens", or more simply, vegetable knife.  It has a squarish shape, and sort of resembles a small Chinese cleaver.  As you may have guessed, it was designed specifically for cutting vegetables.

The blade is almost completely flat with no curve in its belly until the end which makes it perfect for straight clean cuts through vegetables, using a push-cut technique.  Many Japanese chefs will also use a nakiri to peel larger vegetables.

The general size ranges from 165 mm to 180 mm.  Nakiri is the perfect at-home vegetable knife.  Professionals may prefer the single-beveled Usuba to make extra thin cuts.  

For a more complete list of double-bevel Western-Style knives, check out our Knife Types page.

Japanese style (Single Beveled Knives)

Single bevel knives are the original style of Japanese kitchen knives.  Proper preparation of traditional Japanese cuisine (a.k.a. Washoku) requires the use of single beveled knives because it allows the chef to perform more fine, detailed cuts.  

Single bevel knives usually have a thicker body than double bevel knives, but are thinner right behind the cutting edge.  The slimmer cutting edge makes it easier to make super fine cuts.  Using a traditional Japanese style knife requires certain skills and techniques, and is thus often only used by professional chefs.  However, once able to use it correctly, a single-bevel blade can do much more intricate tasks compared to a double-bevel blade.  This is important if you are preparing a dish that requires beautiful presentation.

Traditional Japanese single-bevel knives are meant for use in your right hand only, as only the right side of the blade has a cutting edge.  Left-handed single bevels are rare and expensive as they need to be custom ordered.

Japanese style knives often have very specific uses.  Below are a few common types.

Yanagi - Traditional Sushi Knife

honyaki yanagi japanese knife

Yanagi or Yanagi-ba is a very thin and long knife used specifically in the preparation of fish for sushi and sashimi.  Yanagi means "willow (tree)" and is in reference to the knife's similar appearance to the long and slender willow leaf.  It is also sometimes known as shobu-bocho (literally "sashimi knife").

The Yanagi knife is purposely designed for various fish cutting techniques that maximize the appearance, texture and taste of the fish.  The long blade allows the chef to cut a large block of fish in a single clean pull-cut.  There is no need to zig zag back and forth, which would damage the appearance and texture of the fish.  The ultra thinness of the blade also helps prevents the fish flesh from tearing or bruising during cuts.

In recent years, some chefs have begun using yanagi knives to cut meat.

Yanage knives can range in size from 180 mm to 330 mm.  Professional chefs usually use a longer knife (270mm - 330mm), while shorter sizes are for at home chefs.

Deba - Fish Butchering Knife

Before using a yanagi knife to prepare sashimi, the chef will use a deba knife to butcher and filet the fish. The deba is specifically designed to efficiently slice off the head of the fish without damage, remove other unwanted parts of the fish (fins, etc.,), then filet the fish meat off the body.

The knife is heavier than most Japanese-style knives and features a thick spine, which gives it more support to cut through fish heads and bones. The thin blade, and pointy tip is then useful to help seperate meat from bones. Deba knives come in various sizes (120mm to 210mm) to be used according to the size of the fish.

Despite sturdy appearance, the single bevel cutting edge is still very thin, and should not be used to cut through thick bone, as it will easily damage the edge.

Although traditionally deba knives were only used for fish, these days they are sometimes used for meat as well, especially chicken.

Usuba - The Professional's Vegetable knife

Usuba literally means "thin knife", and is primarily used for working with vegetables.  The ultra thin, sharp blade allows chefs to perform extra delicate tasks like skinning a cucumber, and other decorative work.  It is the professional's version of the double-beveled nakiri knife.

The blade profile of the usuba is rectangular with a nearly, or completely flat cutting edge -- meaning there is little to no curve until the tip of the blade.   This flat edge makes it perfect for making long, clean cuts through vegetables.  Some versions of the usuba have a pointed tip to allow for more intricate work and decorative carvings.

The thin blade of the usuba is very delicate, so cutting anything other than vegetables is not recommended.  Sizes range from 180 mm to 240 mm.  

-----

For a full list of both Western and Traditional style knives, check out our Japanese knife types page.

Japanese Knife Handle Types

There are two main types of handles that you can get with your Japanese knife: a traditional Japanese handle, or a Western handle.   The main differences between the two types are shape, weight, material, and attachment method.  The handle choice usually just depends on the chef's preference, as one is not necessarily better than the other.  Traditional Japanese style knives (i.e.  single-bevel) are typically better suited with a traditional handle.

Traditional Japanese handles (wa-handle)

gyuto knife with japanese handle

A gyuto knife with traditional Japanese handle.

Traditional handles are almost always made of Japanese wood, much lighter than Western handles, and have a cylindrical profile.  There are three typical profile shapes:   round/oval, octagonal, or D-shaped,.  Each shape has its own individual benefits, and again comes down to the individual preference of the chef. 

The lighter weight of Japanese handles makes the knife feel lighter overall, and shifts the balance of the knife closer to the tip of the blade.  The lightness gives the chef a more delicate touch and control when cutting. 

Many different types of wood are used to make traditional handles.  More expensive handles simply use more expensive wood, and are have a nicer looking finish.  The blade of the knife is simply attached to the handle by inserting the tang into the handle, then securing it with glue/epoxy.  This makes traditional Japanese handles quite easy to replace if damaged or worn.

Western handle (yo-handle)

gyuutou knife with western style handle

A gyuto knife with Western style handle.

Heavier Western style handles have a curved grip-shaped profile.  They can be found made of many different types of materials, including synthetics and wood.  The heavier handle gives the knife a sturdier feeling, and also shifts the weight of more towards the handle.  This makes it more suitable for forceful cutting tasks. 

Western handles are usually attached to the blade with rivets through the handle and tang.  This adds to the sturdier feeling, but also makes it much more difficult to repair or replace if damaged.

Japanese Cutting Techniques

In Japanese cuisine, a large emphasis is put on the appearance and presentation of the food.  Japanese chefs want to make the food look as good as it tastes.  For this reason, you will find that there are a a huge multitude of different cutting techniques depending on what you are cutting, and what knife you are using.  Some techniques are basic, while others require a great deal of skill, training, and experience to master.

Cutting Techniques From Japanese Knives

Here are a few common Japanese cutting techniques for vegetables.

Some vegetable cutting techniques

Rangiri - Random Cuts

Rangiri is a technique to cut vegetables like carrots, cucumbers, potatoes, etc., into uneven shapes of the same size.  This cutting techniques gives the vegetable more surface area to cook evenly, quicker and absorb more flavor.  It is great for making stews, currys, and such.

Diffculty level: Basic

How to :
Start by making a diagonal (45 degree angle) cut from the end of the carrot or vegetable.  Rotate the carrot 1/4 (90 degrees) towards you, then make the same diagonal cut.  Repeat until the entire carrot is cut.  See below for a video.


Icho-giri - Gingko leaf cut (Quarter rounds)

Used to cut cylindrical vegetables like carrots and daikon into thin, quarter circle shapes.  "Icho" means gingko in Japanese. The resulting quarter-circle shape looks like a ginkgo leaf, thus the name of this cutting technique.  Often used for soups and salads.

Difficulty level: Basic

How to:
First, split the carrot into manageable sized pieces.   Then, cut the carrot into half lengthwise.   Take each half, then cut lengthwise again.  Then slice each quarter crosswise into equal sized slices. See below for a simple video demonstrating icho-giri technique.

Katsuramuki -  Rotary Sheet Cutting

Katsuramuki is cutting method to turn a cylindrical vegetable like daikon or carrot into a thin, flat sheet.  The sheet is then often further sliced or carved to be used for garnish or decorative purposes.  Though it is often just used for decoration, katsuramuki is an essential knife skill for professional Japanese chefs.  It is best performed with a single-bevel Japanese-style vegetable knife (usuba).  Not recommended for beginners!

Difficulty level: Advanced

See below for a video of a professional chef demonstrating katsuramaki technique on a daikon.

To learn more, check out our page on Japanese cutting techniques.

How Do I Sharpen Japanese Knives?

Keeping your knife in top condition is an essential step to ensure the longevity of your blade.  You should always use a Japanese whetstone  (also called water stone) to sharpen your Japanese knife. Never use a metal knife sharpener, as you will easily damage your blade.  If you have purchased an expensive Japanese knife, you will sorely regret not using the proper sharpening techniques.  

Many professional Japanese chefs will sharpen their knives every night to keep them consistent all the time.   If you are just an at-home chef, you probably do not need to do it every night, but it is recommended to do it on a regular basis (at least once a month) to maintain an even edge and correct angle on your blade.

Whetstones come in various grit sizes for different purposes.   A coarse, low grit stone (approx. 120 to 400 grit) is used for major repairs, chips,  and restoring extremely dull knives.  A medium grit stone (approx. 800 to 2000) is used for normal day to day sharpening, minor chips and repairs.  A finishing stone (approx. 3000 to 8000 grit) is used to remove leftover burr and fine scratches, while also giving your blade a nice polished finish.  Professionals will often have at least three stones for sharpening.  Some whetstones are made double sided -- a low grit for sharpening or quick repairs, and a higher grit for polishing/finishing. 

Different Japanese knife types and styles (i.e. single or double bevel) require different sharpening techniques and whetstones to use.  Every knife is a bit different, and requires a different process depending on the blade angle, shape, steel type, and more.  Often, your knife brand or manufacturer will have specific recommendations to sharpen and maintain its knives.  Many sellers also offer sharpening services for their knives.

If you are not comfortable sharpening your own knife, you should definitely bring it to a professional, or take a knife sharpening class beforehand.

To learn more, check out our full page on Japanese knife sharpening and maintenance.

How are Japanese Knives Made?

A history of swordsmithing

Modern Japanese kitchen knives can trace their roots back over 500 years ago --  to the age of the samurai -- when master swordsmiths forged blades to be used in battle.   Japanese swords became renowned around Asia for their superior craftsmanship, and became a major export for the Japanese economy at the time. 

Traditional samurai swords -- short blade and long blade

As time progressed, the use of swords in battle became less and less due to the advent of firearms.  War and conflict itself became less prevalent in Japan, as there was a long period of peaceful rule.  Eventually, during the Meiji Restoration period in 1868, the government banned samurai from carrying swords in public.  This was part of an attempt to modernize Japanese society, as it had recently opened up to trade with the West.  The samurai class was eventually completely abolished from Japan.  The cumulative effect of these changes in society forced many swordsmiths to find another way to make a living.  Many shifted their focus towards producing kitchen knives and other cutlery.

As many top swordsmiths were concentrated in a few areas of Japan, these areas -- which were famous for producing samurai swords -- became famous instead for kitchen knives and cutlery.  Some of these cities, such as Sakai and Seki, are still known today as top knife making hubs in Japan, and the world.

Japanese Swordsmithing

Through all the cultural changes, master swordsmiths (now known as bladesmiths) still applied the same traditional techniques which made Japanese swords the best in the world, to produce kitchen knives.  Their blade forging knowledge, techniques and skills have since been passed down for generations, and are still used today to make the world-class Japanese kitchen knives that we love.

So, what is the actual process to make Japanese knives?  Read below to find out!

The knife making process

Production of handmade Japanese knives is a long process (typically around three days).  The Japanese knife making process differs slightly from area to area, but the basic steps are about the same.  Here is a very simplified version of how Japanese knives are made, broken down into a few steps.  

1. Steel selection

The type and size of steel chosen depends on the type, and quality of knife that needs to be made.  As mentioned earlier, there are a couple main forging types -- Honyaki and Kasumi.  For super premium Honyaki knives, only a single piece of ultra high-carbon Japanese steel will be used to create the blade.  For the more common Kasumi knives, a combination of soft iron and hard steel are used together.  The soft iron gives the blade more flexibility and durability, while the hard steel gives a sharp cutting edge.  This method is also much cheaper than Honyaki knives.

2. Forging and Shaping

The blade material is heated to extremely high temperature (1200 or 1300 celcius) in a forge, and then hammered into the proper shape and thickness by the bladesmith.  Hammering not only shapes the blade, but also helps to remove impurities from the material.  For Kasumi knives, the iron and steel material are first folded and fused together, then hammered out accordingly.

3. Hardening (Quenching / Tempering)

During the shaping process, the blade is continuously heated to high temperatures and then immediately cooled in oil or water.  This increases the hardness of the blade.  The heating / cooling cycle is repeated at different temperatures throughout the shaping process until the final hardness level is achieved.

4. Grinding, Sharpening, Polishing

After the blade is shaped and hardened, the final cutting edge needs to made.  This is what ultimately defines the knife.  Using a spinning whetstone, the blades are first grinded to the proper edge angle.  Through repeated sharpening cycles with increasingly fine whetstones, the edge eventually reaches its final sharpness level.  Since the whetstones spin at a high speed during sharpening, they are constantly sprayed with cold water to keep the blade from overheating and deforming.  The sharpened blade is then polished to remove scratches and give the knife a beautiful finish.

5.  Handle Attachment

Finally, after the blade is dried and treated for rust, it is attached to the handle and gone through a final quality check before it is handed to the customer.   There are numerous types of Japanese knife handles, and the choice just depends on the maker or the customer.  Some handles can be replaced, or switched if necessary.

Often, each step of the knife making process is handled by its own specialist before being handed off for the next step.   One person will do the initial forging, one will finalize the shape, while another specializes in sharpening only.  In total, there may be around 3-4 people that work on a single knife.  The time and detail needed to produce one Japanese knife is what puts Japanese knives a level above all others in the world.

A finished blue steel, honyaki, yanagi knife with traditional ebony wood handle. (Sakai Takayuki brand)

Conclusion

This article discusses Japanese knives and their history. It also explains the difference between single beveled knives and double beveled knives, sharpening stones, and some relevant queries people have related to Japanese knives.

We have given you comprehensive details on Japanese knives, their types, and uses. In our buying guide we offer some helpful tips for you to choose your Japanese, and give some recommended options for first-timers.

Leave a Comment: